Before we get to the clickbait title, let’s back up: what are we doing in Colombia? There are a number of answers: we’ve never been to South America, we have Colombian friends back home, and Bourdain did a compelling episode. It’s also the type of country we love to visit – scrappy, recovering from a troubled past, with a young, vibrant, and dynamic society. Also, arepas.
So, through the magic of flights that were just ($2!) under the cap for redeeming frequent flier points, we found ourselves in Bogotá yesterday evening. We’re staying at an amazing Airbnb – a penthouse apartment spread over two stories (with a third story nook) and a balcony. Probably the best place we’ve ever stayed – a total surprise.
We decided a guided introduction to the city was our best bet, so we booked a private tour with Bogota Bike Tours. Our general guidance was that we’re interested in street food and graffiti, but we left it open. Little did we know just how open!
We met our guide, Mauricio, around 9. Mauricio is a fascinating guy – an artist, tour guide, astronomer, and advocate for homeless children. He definitely loves his city. The tour was very informal. We came to screeching halts every block or so to learn about a building or a monument. The sudden nature of things, combined with the somewhat chaotic Bogotá traffic, meant you needed to be on high alert at all times.
Throughout the city, there are reminders of the 60+ year struggle with the FARC and other paramilitary groups. There are monuments to assassinated leaders and celebrities, and an occasional reminder of CIA activities making things worse. Mauricio commented that he still pinches himself, a year on from the peace deal – it’s hard to believe it’s real.
While stopped in the main political square in the city, two young girls approached us an asked if we were tourists. They explained that they’d never met tourists before. Then they call over all their friends – ranging from 16 to 18. They’re from outside the city, and were in town for a school trip. Because it’s 2017, they all practice their English by watching YouTube videos on their smartphones. Mauricio tried to convince them that they should listen to Pink Floyd and the Beatles as well. You know, for practice. We did our best in Spanish, they did their best in English, and we all cracked up a lot.
We stopped for an occasional snack – arepas, pan do bono, coffee, and so on. We toured the red light district. We toured parks. Around noon, Mauricio said “so normally the tour is about three hours. But that’s not long enough. Do you have anywhere to be?” Well, in fact, we did not.
Our first afternoon stop was the National University of Colombia. It’s large (30,000 students) but feels like a small private school in many ways. Each department has its own freestanding building, with plenty of green space between them. We visited the large animal veterinary school to say hi to the cows and horses. It was an exam day, so there was a particular buzz on campus.
At this point, Mauricio let us know that he technically had an appointment at 2:00 – the people buying his mother’s home needed to review the property as part of closing the deal. But not to worry – it wouldn’t be more than 15 minutes. No problem! We settled in in the courtyard of the home – Kat painted, and I fiddled with my phone. An hour and change later, we were wrapped up and on our way, desperate for some real lunch.
An appetizer of ceviche, and then a hearty bowl of soup had us back to normal. We stopped into the Claro store for a SIM card for Kat, and then peddled around to review some more street art. The SIM card turned out to be defective, so we stopped at another Claro store for a replacement. Only they couldn’t sell the recharge that the card needed, so we went to the grocery for that. Then back to the Claro store so they could punch in the appropriate codes.
By this point, it was well after 6 and we were pretty well spent. Mauricio would not allow us to leave without a proper hot chocolate – with cheese of course. We spent some time in a lovely cafe where we sliced up little bits of cheese and dropped them into our steamy cups. A well deserved treat.
It turns out we were only a block from Mauricio’s apartment, so he said it made more sense to just drop the bikes there. He invited us up to see some of his paintings. This lead to a viewing of the bracelets that are the product of his work with homeless kids. He teaches them how to weave the bracelets, and provides them ready to go starter kits. It’s a calming activity for them, and a chance to make something. Mauricio is clear that these are not handicrafts, but are artwork, and he works with the kids to help differentiate the two. Kat bought a belt made by a homeless kid named Jonathan – Mauricio can tell you the full backstory of the person who created any given piece. As an aside, he also has a telescope which he uses to teach the kids about astronomy – talk about a well rounded guy!
By now, it was getting close to 8, and we’d been on our 3 hour tour for 11 hours. Time to head home! We strolled north, with a stop in the grocery for some snacks, grabbed a skewer of street chicken, and made it home just before 9.
We’ll have more thoughts about the city and our experiences in a future update. Right now, we’re dead tired and facing a 6am wake up for a train! More on that tomorrow.